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Icelandic Woman Likely Carved Lewis Chessmen

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Icelandic Woman Likely Carved Lewis Chessmen

Lewis chessmen in the British Museum

Lewis chessmen in the British Museum. Photo: Andrew Dunn

Ancient chessmen, unearthed in 1831 on the shore of the Isle of Lewis off the west coast of Scotland, may very well be the work of an Icelandic female carver, The Economist reports. This is the conclusion of Nancy Marie Brown, an American expert in the Viking Age, whose book was just published. Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made them is published by St. Martin’s Press.

The chessmen are considered the greatest treasure of medieval game pieces ever found. The first person to set forth the theory that the pieces might be the work of an Icelandic woman carver, Margrét the Adroit (“hin oddhaga”), was Guðmundur G. Þórarinsson, an engineer and former chairman of the Icelandic Chess Federation. He introduced his theory in 2010 at an international symposium on the Lewis chessmen. He suggested that Bishop Páll Jónsson of Skálholt commissioned the 92 walrus ivory pieces from Margrét in the 13th century. Margret was, at the time, the most skilled carver in the country.

The Economist describes “the queens, one hand pressed in alarm or woe to a cheek; the grim kings with braided hair, thrones elaborately detailed with Romanesque loops; the doughty, somewhat ludicrous knights; mitred bishops; and most of all the rooks, several biting their shields, unmistakably representations of Viking “berserks”, the warriors of the Norse god Odin.”

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